I read a fascinating news article today about the worries that doctors have because some people are choosing not to get their measles immunization for their children (this could also be read: doctors are annoyed people are challenging their judgment). Here is the article about the jump in measles cases.
There are several parts of the article that caught my eye.
Many people are rejecting the measles shot out of concern that it might be a factor in making kids autistic. To this, the article says, recapitulating the ‘party’ line:
Questions commonly center on autism and the fear that it can be caused by the measles shots or by a mercury-based preservative that used to be in most vaccines. Health officials say there is no good scientific proof either is a cause. [emph mine]
Well, that proves it then! If there is no proof that the shot is a cause of autism, you are being completely irrational to suppose that nonetheless it might be. There is no proof it is… and no proof it isn’t, either. It is ridiculous to suppose that ones actually burdened with the decisions to provide for their welfare of the children, the parents, must wait to make those decisions for ‘good scientific proof.’ We’re still waiting for ‘good scientific proof’ that coffee is good or bad for us. If we all waited for ‘good scientific proof’ we’d probably never do anything. The fact is that we have to make judgment calls and doctors should be respecting that.
We are not talking about small pox here. We’re talking about a disease which may be fatal (and just about any disease and infection may be) but quite often is not. In this same article we read:
None of the 131 patients died, but 15 were hospitalized.
Out of a population of some 300,000,000 a scant 131 individuals contracted the disease, and of these, only 15 required hospitalization and of these, zero died. And not only that, but the article opens up with some very revealing information:
Measles cases in the U.S. are at the highest level in more than a decade, with nearly half of those involving children whose parents rejected vaccination, health officials reported Thursday.
We are not expected to comprehend that this means that the other half very likely did have the vaccine. So in fact even getting the vaccine does not mean you won’t get the disease. The article admits in more detail later that it is certain that at least 11 of the cases had the vaccine. We are not told if those who were hospitalized were ones who had had the vaccine or ones who had not. That would make an interesting twist on the story.
On the other side of the coin, nobody knows what causes autism. Unlike a piddly hundred and some cases of measles, cases of autism is on the rise. Check out some stats. In 1992 there were 15,000 reported cases of autism. In 2006, less than fifteen years later, there were 250,000 cases of autism, with each year in between showing more cases than the previous years.
Where I come from, an increase from 15,000 to 250,000 in under a decade and a half is a far more serious issue than the possibility that my kid might get a disease that he might die from. Just why are incidents of autism up 1,342 percent in just fifteen years? Nobody knows.
Now, I am not saying that I believe the MMR vaccine causes autism. I accept that there is ‘no good scientific proof’ that it does. I do know that cases of autism are skyrocketing and nobody knows why. Though it may yet be mere ‘anecdotal’ evidence that vaccinations and autism are related, the fact is that I’m the one responsible for the well being of my children, not the doctors or the scientific community. Me. The parent. At the end of the day, the child goes home with the parent and the parent must live with the consequences of the decision. The doctor can say “Well, there is no proof that my shot did that…” The parent has no such consolation.
Rather than raise the bar for any medical decision to a threshold of ‘good scientific proof’ one way or another, doctors should respect the fact that the parents must weigh evidence for themselves and rarely, rarely, rarely, do any of us have the benefit of having ‘good scientific proof’ regarding any of the things we make decisions about. Things may be real even if there is no ‘good scientific proof’ that they are. People were getting sick and dying from radiation poisoning before they understood what radiation did.
In this case, a little perspective seems in order. If ever it turns out that vaccines really have nothing to do with autism (and this is proven– since apparently ‘proof’ is the only standard construed to be reasonable) then the price we will have paid for our hesitance is meager, indeed. A scant number sick, a scantier number hospitalized, and occasionally a death- maybe. And this includes even those who received the immunization!
At the heart of this is how much deference we commoners must give to the ‘scientific community.’ Since no one (yet) proposes that all children be handed over to the state and the scientific community for care and upbringing, it remains the parents’ job to do the best that they can. And the scientific community- which knows full well what it does know and what it does not know- should give them some slack.